Stage 2: Hills and Plains
Amazing culture at every turn as the route hits the mountains
Stage 2 Actual Route
On this, and all other route maps, the blue lines represent travel by ship, red by airplane (Booo!), and green by bicycle.
Laos: A Great Addition
Up next was a last-minute addition to the route, an amazing visit to the country of Laos. I began to feel a desire to ride there while in Thailand, and made the decision to go while in Cambodia. So, there was not much time to plan the visit, certainly not to the level that I had done for the rest of the route. But I did what I could, and set out, a little unsure of what would lie ahead. My route started in the extreme south of the country, which is sparsely populated and correspondingly light in terms of services, and ran north along the Mekong Valley following a consistently good road. Along the way was a small, but pretty Khmer ruins site, at Wat Phou, and a couple of small, but interesting towns, such as Savannaket. Further north, I turned into the highlands, which included a section over some of the worst roads of the tour. Had I know it would be so rough, I surely would not have gone that way, of course now that it's in the past, I'm glad I did.
Once I broke out of the tough section, the route passed through one of the most appealing areas so far, through forested mountains with many interesting people and places. In fact, the Lao people were great all throughout the country, and many still partake in traditional cultural practices, which I found fascinating. Along the way, I visited the unusual Plane of Jars, an odd site left by an unknown prehistoric culture, and then finished the route through the country at Luang Pra Bang, a splendidly attractive community and a top contender to be my favorite city of the whole tour. I took a nice long break there, which was a little longer than I'd hoped as I ate something that I shouldn't have and had to take a sick day. Because of that I didn't have time to ride back to Thailand through the capital, Vientiane, as I had planned, but had to take a boat transfer up the Mekong to a northern Thai border crossing. That was fun in it's own way, but was noisier and faster than I would have liked.
Posts now begin to expand starting: ~HERE~
A little girl watches a cow
Heavy traffic on Highway 13
Students biking home from school
Wat Xieng Thong in the lovely town of Luang Pra Bang
Sunset over the Mekong River
Myammar: Stunning, but Sadly Suffering
Myanmar was a country that at once approached the best and worst of Stage 2. It turned out to be a rather difficult place to tour, by my standards at least. One big reason for that was the almost universally bad roads. Most of the "good" roads were unpleasantly bumpy, and the bad ones were just disastrous. On top of that, the country has been suffering for years under the oppressive and, frankly, inept rule of a cadre of former military officers. From messing up the Internet, to closing off large parts of the country to travelers without good reason, their policies only served to make things difficult for me. Worst of all is that after five decades, or so, of xenophobic governments of one sort or another, it is essentially impossible to travel into or out of the country overland. That meant two very annoying air transfers in and out of the country, both of which were complicated and unpleasant thanks to airline screw-ups. Of course, things are even worse for the people who live in the country.
On the bright side, Myanmar had some of the best and most impressive cultural sights I have ever seen. Additionally, the people there were, once again, fantastic and possessed a culture which was surprisingly distinct from their neighbors. My initial plan was to do a loop from the capital, Yangon, north to the city of Mandalay and back. That would have allowed me to see all of the main sights in the "allowed" tourist area, and apply for my visa for India (a frustratingly slow process) on the first stop in Yangon, and then pick it up later. Things started out fairly well, but then became increasingly difficult thanks to the aforementioned government restrictions and bad roads, the latter of which became increasingly poor as I entered the mountains. Nevertheless, I saw Inle Lake and the unique and friendly Intha people who live around it, the impressive cave temple at Pindaya, Mandalay and its former Royal Palace, and stumbled upon a fascinating dedication ceremony of a freshly-renovated pagoda in the countryside. However, it was the ancient city of Bagan which completely shocked me with its inspiring collection of temples and pagodas, many of which are still important religious places for the local population.
Unfortunately, after all of the difficulties riding through Myanmar, I was well behind schedule by the time I reached Bagan, and I did not have time to ride back to Yangon, and so I had to start the air transfer from there, which was very annoying. On the bright side, that gave me another day to see the ruins. It was a slightly disturbing visit, because the political situation in the country shows no sign of improving any time soon. Once it does, the country would certainly become one of the world's top destinations, but more importantly, the lives of it's people can get back on track.
Myanmar could fill many posts like the one: ~HERE~
A city street and a golden Stupa in Bago
Kids from a mountain village
Rowing by foot on Inle Lake
Evening at the splendid ancient city of Bagan
I "Water the Buddha" at Sule Pagoda in Yangon
Bangladesh: Controlled Chaos on the Plains
Bangladesh was next, though being a small country in terms of land area, I did not stay there for very long. Small in terms of land, Bangladesh is large in terms of people, being one of the most densely populated lands on Earth. That fact touched every aspect of my travels through the country. Since I was required to fly out of Myanmar, I arrived in the capital, Dhaka, a huge city, and is the top contender for the craziest city of the tour. I stayed for a little longer than I wanted, because a package of supplies I had sent from home was delivered a little late. Traffic there, and throughout the rest of the country, was probably louder, dirtier, and more dangerously uncontrolled than anywhere else in the world.
Once out of the big city, the environs changed from urban to mainly rural and agrarian. However, the population remained heavy, even in the countryside. Because of that, I essentially gave up camping as my main accommodation as there were just too many people around. As it turned out I would camp only a few more times during the rest of the Stage in Asia. It was also quite difficult to find a moment’s privacy to rest along the way. However, there was always someone doing something interesting every few meters along the way, which made up a little for the crowds and traffic. There were few cultural or natural sites easily accessible along the route, but one was the ruins of an ancient Buddhist vihara in Paharpur. Despite the somewhat stressful nature of traveling there I felt a bit satisfied that I did so successfully, once I had made it through, at least.
A fairly short post for a small country: ~HERE~
A man carries water through Chawk Bazaar in Dhaka
Clay pots and other goods being sent up river
Colorful dresses on travelling ladies
Men from a textile-making village
Bhutan: Buccolic and Beautiful
After several tough weeks, I reached my most anticipated destination, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. That small, but beautiful, country has its own issues for travelers, but they are of a completely different nature. There are tight regulations of tourism there, in order to prevent uncontrolled development, and consequently tourists need to be accompanied by a guide and the costs for travel are high compared to the rest of Asia. Having a guide and support was not my normal mode of travel, and I never really got completely used to it. Additionally, of course, the mighty Himalayas pose their own challenges and, because of that it, was not always so bad to have support along.
I wanted to see as much of the country as possible, and that required special permission, which was fortunately obtained by the tour company. The route entered the country at its southwestern border crossing with India, climbed quickly up to altitudes above 2,300 meters, and then took me to the towns of Paro and the capital, Thimphu, the largest two towns in the country. From there we turned east and crossed six or seven high passes, up to 3,780 meters at Thrumshing La and a total of almost 15,000 meters of climbing, along the way visiting the small, but lovely, towns of Punhaka, Trongsa, Jakar, Mongar, Lhuntse, and Trashigang. The final day way a long, strenuous turn to the south back towards the Indian border at the town of Samdrup Jongnkhar. In spite of the tough terrain, the ride was amazing, and I really fell for the great people, distinct and colorful culture, and spectacular scenery of Bhutan.
The sights of Bhutan are described in a post: ~HERE~
Into the Himalyas at last, at Paro
A small town shopfront
Men in Punhaka Dzong
Women in Punhaka Dzong
The first day of school in Wangdue Phodrang
Terraces and a river near Trashigang
Stage 2 Log